When I started as an editor at The Offing Colin Winnette was one of the first people I solicited. One publisher I contacted called him “indie lit’s best kept secret.” I hadn’t read much of his fiction, but when I reached out, he immediately sent over a digital copy of his newest novel, Haints Stay. I was sold.
Haints Stay is a western about two brothers, Sugar and Brooke: they’re hired guns who ride from town to town in search of employment. Like all calculated killers, they operate on a self-made ethical code (they don’t just murder for fun), though they’re not opposed to bouts of impulsive violence. Sugar is also pregnant with Brooke’s baby.
Through their travels, Brooke and Sugar confront cannibals, a mysterious boy, and eat raw meat; they participate in gun fights, nightly raids, and a game of darts. In Haints Stay, the best parts of a Western are all there — and then some: the book bends conventions, reimagines the landscape, and questions prominent themes. Often times, it’s also hilarious.
The following interview took place over email.
Alex Norcia: The “haint” in Haints Stay is a southern colloquialism for “ghost” or “lost soul.” It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that most — if not all — of the characters are haints. Brooke and Sugar may think they have direction (working as hired killers), but they spend most of the novel meandering in the desert and the woods. Another character, Martha, sets-off after a man in pursuit of vengeance, but she pursues the wrong man. A young boy, Bird, has quite literally no sense of identity (his palms are “smooth,” and he doesn’t know anything, really, about his parents, or his home). There’s also this persistent idea of places and things being haunted: Bird interprets Sugar and Brooke’s burying of their victims’ teeth as a way of ridding of the phantoms that might come and torment them, and despite everyone’s constant wandering and fleeing, they end-up, over time, in the same towns and buildings they left in the beginning. How much do horror and the unknown come into play? In the end, what actually haunts your characters? Is there a remedy to overcome these fears?
Colin Winnette: I was having a conversation with my stepmother the other week, and she was complaining about the Coen brothers. She’s a psychologist from the Czech Republic, and her take was that the Coen brothers are sociopaths — sociopaths who, luckily for us, have found a way of channeling their issues through making art, rather than experimenting with reality. “There is always a dead body,” she said. “Even the pit the girl falls into in True Grit, it has to be full of snakes coiled around a dead body. They are obsessed.” Ignoring the fact that True Grit was an adaptation (twice over), I can see her point about the bodies. The movies are full of death — and I think part of what draws me to them is exactly what disturbs her. Like those movies, Haints Stay presents a world that’s, at its most basic level, pretty fucking terrible. It’s saying, okay, assuming this place we’re all in is pretty much the worst, and most of us are pretty rotten in one way or another, what then? There’s all this beautiful stuff about it, too, but does it even matter? And how do I account for the fact that, in spite of everything, it feels like it does? What are we, as humans, capable of and what aren’t we capable of? Can we have a positive impact in spite of how awful everything is? If you throw out the idea of good and evil as anything other than a narrative device, and then just consider all the things we could possibly do to one another, I suddenly have so much more admiration and love for the alert and loving and respectful people I encounter in the world. I’m like, you could have been any way, but you somehow managed to be this way. You are my goddamn fucking hero.
Your most obvious concern regarding identity is with the brothers, Sugar and Brooke: Sugar is a transgender man pregnant with Brooke’s baby. Sugar, his baby, and the cannibals in the woods are referred to as “creatures.” Martha takes on duties one would “traditionally” associate with a man in a Western: she is skilled with a gun, and she has a firm (almost stubborn) outlook on life. This is a broad question, but one I’m compelled to ask: what did you hope to accomplish by making this the case?
The book is very concerned with expectations — what society expects of these characters and what they expect of themselves. I’m interested in the ways we fail to live up to the often arbitrary expectations the world can have of us, and the often equally arbitrary expectations we have of ourselves. All of the characters have multiple identities—these people aren’t fixed. It’s particularly obvious in the case of the kids. The adults are a little more set in their ways, but we see the kids trying things out a little more and figuring out what feels right. We’re always developing, evolving, maybe devolving. No one is fixed. We change for all kinds of reasons, and so do the characters in this book. Some characters become estranged from the person they thought were whereas others discover the person they’d been for some time but hadn’t yet brought into focus.
As for the “creatures,” I tried to tie every line of narrative to a character’s perception. So it’s always what someone is thinking or seeing, and not just the book telling you something. Of course it shifts a lot, whose eyes we’re using. When the word creature appears, it’s almost always because a character is seeking to differentiate themselves from someone or something else, and in a way that reduces the other and elevates the speaker. So, to the drunk and angry and devastated doctor, Sugar is a “creature.” To Bird, the deer and the bird he’s trying to kill are “creatures.”
As expected, you dwell on the typical themes of the Western — power, justice, and belonging — but you don’t present any of them in a very clear way. By clear, I mean none of them seem to have single meaning; the definitions appear in flux. How did you decide how to approach these “codes?” In Bird’s words, “what is a venge?” Is murder just murder?
I think I was just having fun with it at first. The idea of writing a Western was really appealing to me because it gave me all of these little devices and tools and expectations to play with, stark conceptions of justice and belonging being a couple of them. I’ve never been very comfortable with myself, so I tend to write characters who have something sort of “off” about them. And it was really enjoyable to be able to write characters who were sort of “off” in a world that was pretty deeply off but had a strong enough cultural / historical context to keep people (and myself) engaged. Then it started to click and I was fascinated with the interplay between these characters and the world they live in, also the things readers would bring to that world and these characters. This isn’t pure chaos, it’s chaos bouncing around inside of these little imagined fences. Which makes it easier to see/feel the chaos, while simultaneously shining a light on both the artificiality of the fences and their necessity.
Of course, I’m not getting at anything too new or original. Almost every blurb or early review for Haints Stay that I’ve come across contains some reference to how you’ve rethought the Western. How much of this was a conscious decision? While the subversion of masculinity, identity, and justice are clearly all there, it still very much feels like a western: there’s the zealous sheriff, the guns, the barroom brawls. The pace is what you think it should be, and all the tropes and stock characters do appear, even if they’re skewed. In other words, was there a balance you wanted to strike between honoring the notion of the Western, while at the same time altering it in the way you did?
I don’t think I was interested in honoring the notion of the Western all that much. I was interested in taking what I love about them and using that and poking some holes in the things I think are ridiculous or just funny. Also, there’s a lot that many Westerns explore that I don’t touch. This wasn’t necessarily about contributing specifically to the conversation Westerns started or have taken part in for years. For a while, I even hesitated to call this book a Western. Because it isn’t, really. If you picked up a map of the world in Haints Stay and started walking east, you’d probably go through some nastiness and then find yourself exactly where you started.
What writers informed Haints Stay? Or what else influenced the novel? Do you see it having any relationship to the surrealism of the “Acid Western” films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa, and Alex Cox’s Walker? Is it even useful to try to categorize the book within that context?
I tried not to read too many Westerns while I was writing this book. I wanted to use the objects and dynamics of a Western, but I didn’t want the story or the language to get too tainted. I watched a lot of Westerns while I was writing. Obviously Jarmusch’s Dead Man had a big impact on me, but even more so I’d point to movies like Cat Ballou or True Grit or Meek’s Crossing, movies that are less overt in their subversions (though Haints Stay is far from subtle). There’s a scene in Meek’s Crossing where Michelle Williams is trying to warn members of her party after spotting a Native American, whom she believes is dangerous. She fires a shot and then the film just sits there and watches her clean the barrel, dump the powder, load the bullet, cock the rifle (or whatever you do with a rifle) and then fire. The scene feels like it takes forever, but it is wildly compelling, partly because it feels so real. It’s something so many other Westerns leave out entirely, how long it would actually have taken to fire that second shot.
I also thought of True Grit, not only because of its twisting conventions, but because, like Portis’ novel, Haints Stay is very funny. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges from your novel. After arriving in a new town, Sugar and Brooke immediately go to the bar, where they have a conversation with the proprietor:
“We’re not heavy drinkers,” explained the bartender.
“What do you do?” asked Sugar.
“We’re religious,” said the bartender…
For me, it resonated with lines from True Grit — “You will sometimes let money interfere with your notions of what is right” — because the humor comes from a candid honesty and simplicity. The very places and people and actions you expect in a Western become jokes in and of themselves. Beyond drinking at the saloon and attending mass in the morning, for instance, what is there even to do? You skillfully manage, though, to never turn anyone into a caricature, or to transform any place into some generic establishment. It’s not Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. What purpose do you see your humor serving? Do you recognize a relationship between humor and the Western?
I think a lot of Westerns are pretty funny. Some of them try to be super serious, but even that is kind of funny. But, yeah, Portis was a huge influence (although I’m pretty sure I finished Haints Stay before I allowed myself to read True Grit). Norwood might be my favorite of his. And it’s precisely that thing you’re describing (thank you), the straight-faced jokes that only really work when the characters truly believe what they’re saying. They’re not just punch lines. They have humanity, and it’s bumping up against something that’s making both things appear momentarily ridiculous. I live for that.
Since 2011, you’ve essentially had a new book come out every year: Revelation in 2011, Animal Collection in 2012, Fondly in 2013, and now Coyote and soon Haints Stay in 2015 (you missed 2014 and doubled-up in 2015). I’m glad you’ve already referenced the Coen brothers because your approach to writing fiction resonates like the process of the Coen brothers creating a film. Not necessarily in output but in form. That is, I’m personally interested less in the speed in which you produce (an admirable feat) and more in what it is you’re producing. One way to view the Coen brothers’ body of work is as a bouncing around from genre-to-genre and messing with them: Fargo, the crime thriller; The Man Who Wasn’t There, a black-and-white noir; Intolerable Cruelty, a 1940s-esque romantic comedy. You seem to be following a similar pattern: for example, your debut, Revelation, concerns the Biblical apocalypse, while Coyote can be considered, loosely, as a murder mystery. And for the Western, Joel and Ethan have True Grit; you have Haints Stay. I’m not trying to suggest you or they have a checklist, but it does strike me as a pattern. Do you agree? Generally, what’s usually the genesis of your work? What makes you initially want to write a story)?
If you have a lot of creative energy and discipline, why wouldn’t you chase after everything you can? Try this, try that. Have some fun with it all. I don’t feel excited to work if I’m doing something that feels redundant. I greatly admire the Coen brothers, for a lot of reasons. And you’re right in that it’s hard not to notice their attraction to genre. They’re part of a cluster of artists who got me interested in mining genre, in exploring the fascinating impact and power of the familiar. Also, it’s a cliché that writing books is more about asking questions than providing answers, but it’s something I find to be true for myself. Which means that, at the end of a book, I’ve still got these ideas and interests kicking around inside me, narratively resolved (in some way) but not necessarily personally. I’m still me. I resolve some things as I move along in life, but I’ll never resolve everything. So I look to the next project thinking less about how I’m going to make it different than the one before and more about how I’m going to create a world out of all the same feelings and problems I’ve always had without feeling bored. If all you’ve got in the fridge is chicken, you don’t have to eat chicken tacos every night. You can do a lot of great stuff with chicken. Here’s a better way of looking at it: I like myself, but I’m not that impressed with myself. After I’ve written a book, I can pretty easily identify all the things that are just me, the way I think and feel. So then I set after the next book thinking, okay, that was fine, but how do I do something better?
What initially attracts me to a story, often, is that I don’t know how it could easily turn into something I’ve done before. I look at it and say, what the hell is that? What would I even do with that? And if I don’t know the answer, I’m drawn to it. If I do know the answer, I’m less drawn to it, but not entirely put off. Sometimes I think, what the hell is that and the answer is a western and I’m like, cool, yeah, that sounds like fun.
Do you believe publishing with independent presses is one of the things that allow you to produce at such a rapid rate? As you become more popular, and I would assume hope to publish with larger presses, do you see your work slowing down? Will that be a problem for you?
It’s one of the things that allowed me to publish at such a rapid rate. I wrote my first three books when I was in graduate school, and I just had a lot of time on my hands and a lot of energy. Also, I wasn’t interested in letting my self-doubt get in the way of things. I just wanted to move forward with what felt right and let the rest of it hang out and smoke and curse in the backseat. I wrote the other two books once I moved to San Francisco. I was pretty racked with self-doubt while I was writing Coyote and probably you can tell. It’s a pretty big bummer of a book. I mean, I like it, but damn. I generally work quickly when I know what a project is and have an end in sight. I don’t know if working with a bigger press would slow me down. I suppose that would be up to them. The presses I’ve worked with so far have been very supportive. We ran alongside one another and got the thing done. Independent presses tend to have a lot of energy (at least the ones I’m drawn to working with), and they’re typically excited about experimenting and letting your book be entirely what it is. I’ve never worked with a press that made me feel like they had expectations of me outside of what I was interested in doing. I’ve only worked with the presses I’ve worked with, so I can’t really speak to what it would be like to work with anyone else… but if I found myself working with a press (large or small) that was really getting in my way, I think that would be a problem for me. I really like writing. I want to keep doing it and I want to keep evolving. I think as long as I’m doing that I’ll be happy, or happy enough.